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Uncle Miltie sold the U.S. on television

Chicago Tribune media critic

Milton Berle, ladies and germs, was often cited as the man who put the television into the American living room, but he was also a man who watched the new medium pretty quickly pass him by.

That didn't matter Wednesday, when Berle upon his death was once again hailed as "Mr. Television" and remembered for the astronomical ratings his "Texaco Star Theater" variety series drew for several years beginning in 1948.

"The period when Milton was really huge was a relatively short one, but it was so terribly important. The critic Gilbert Seldes said he lit the fuse that started the television explosion, and I don't think that's an exaggeration," said Robert J. Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

"Everybody needed an excuse to go out and spend the big chunk of money, move the radio aside and install that set. Berle provided that."

Also nicknamed "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Tuesday Night," after his show's weekly time slot, the 93-year-old embodiment of 20th-century entertainment died Wednesday at his Los Angeles home after a long illness, a publicist said. He had been diagnosed with colon cancer last year and was under hospice care for the past several weeks.

"He was one of the legends. He was the godfather of the one-liners," said Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory comedy club in Hollywood.

The marquee of Masada's club said Wednesday: "Milton Berle, Rest in Peace, Make God Laugh."

Yet because of his long period of relative eclipse, Berle was perhaps underappreciated by the current generation of comics and comedy fans, said Larry Miller, one of the few contemporary comedians to join the Friars Club, of which Berle was a longtime mainstay.

"You know that swing of DiMaggio? Where you can't believe a man could be that graceful, and then you can't believe a man could be that powerful? That was Berle," said Miller. "The natural. You don't know. Believe me, you don't. Even if you're old enough, you think, `Loved him. Funny guy. Made faces. Wore a dress.'

"You don't know. He was the best. Comics know. I know."

American television audiences knew, too, especially for a period of about five years in the medium's first days.

He was a brash performer who had been pushed onto the stage by a mother with thwarted theatrical dreams of her own.

"In those days being an actress was considered like being a harlot, so she never did it," Berle, born Mendel Berlinger in New York City on July 12, 1908, said of his mother.

"Instead, she poured all of her drive and passion for show business into me and my career. ... She was the ultimate stage mother. She made Gypsy Rose Lee's mother look like Mary Poppins."

Fueled by her dreams, Berle had persevered through an up-and-down vaudeville, Broadway and radio career before he came to television in 1948.

"He flopped in radio because he was visual. "With TV, he was in the right place at the right time," said Lawrence Lichty, a professor in Northwestern University's radio/television/film department. "With all due respect, there wasn't anything else on."

More-established performers shunned the new medium.

Berle's "Texaco Star Theater," a hosting gig he won during on-air auditions over a number of other performers, quickly became a sensation, in part because of his penchant for coming out in a zany costume then delivering his lines with an aggression that popped out of the set.

"He did things outrageous, outlandish and outsize," Lichty recalled. "The screens were so small you had to be outrageous. The first time I saw him I was looking at him through one of those plastic bubbles you filled with water to magnify the picture."

Although the ratings steadily declined as more competition arose, in the beginning some 80 percent of households with television delighted in the show's mixture of comics, musicians and novelty acts, who often interacted with Berle himself.

"Restaurants, theaters and nightclubs adjusted their schedules so patrons would not miss Berle's program at 8:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday nights," notes the "Encyclopedia of Television."

And sets, with and without magnifying elements, moved out of stores. In the 1949-50 television season, Berle's second on the air, 7.8 percent of American homes had sets, according to Nielsen Media Research. A year later, that proportion had almost tripled. By 1955-56, the end of Berle's first TV run, a television was in 71.2 percent of homes.

But by 1955-56, Berle's variety program, known by a number of names during its run, had fallen out of television's Top 20.

"It got exceeded by other things," said Syracuse's Thompson. "`I Love Lucy' and `Ed Sullivan' in the end were actually better shows than `The Milton Berle Show,' but Milton came first."

His periodic attempts at a television comeback were unsuccessful, including 1960's "Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle," and Berle spent most of the rest of his life trying to come to terms with the iconic status he had so quickly achieved.

Berle in later years was a frequent talk-show guest, Friars Club fixture and author of several autobiographies and books of jokes.

He was married at least three times, including twice to the former showgirl Joyce Matthews, cracking after the second marriage that he had to do it because she reminded him so much of his first wife. His spouse since 1992, fashion designer Lorna Adams, was among those at his bedside when he died.

During his career, which also included appearances in films including 1963's "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," Berle was also known for joking openly about stealing other comics' materials, famously remarking that one comic had made him laugh so hard he almost dropped his pencil.

This kind of wit, along with his notoriously large collection of jokes cataloged on index cards, served him well as a kind of elder statesman of comedy.

"Milton Berle died today for the 10,000th time," Chicago comic Tom Dreesen, who knew Berle since 1975, said Wednesday, using the comic's term for failing to wow an audience. "I'm thinking now that he's dead, he'll probably will all the material he took from other comedians back to them."

Chicago Tribune staff reporters Allan Johnson, James C. Warren and James Janega contributed to this report.

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